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The late Brian Friel, a photo used by The New York Times for his obituary.

Extract While researching something else, I came across Brian Friel's story - I was fascinated

Author Kelly Matthews outlines how she came across the life and stories of ‘Ireland’s Chekhov’ for her book, Brian Friel: Beginnings, which is out now.

AFTER HIS PLAY Philadelphia, Here I Come! became the biggest hit of the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival and a breakout success in New York City, Brian Friel went on to write more than 20 plays for Broadway and West End theatres.

In 1980, in response to the escalating brutality of the Troubles, he co-founded the Field Day theatre company, whose first production was Friel’s play Translations. Over the course of his life, Friel won numerous awards, including the 1992 Tony for best play for Dancing at Lughnasa, later adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep.

Friel, NY Times obituary photo The late Brian Friel, a photo used by The New York Times for his obituary.

When he died in October 2015, the New York Times eulogised him as ‘the Irish Chekhov’, noting his ‘distinctive blend of melancholy and humour’. The Guardian called him ‘the father of modern Irish drama’.

Finding Friel

But I didn’t know I would focus on Friel when I first embarked on a research trip to the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham Park, outside Reading. I wanted to delve into scripts written by Northern Irish writers in the mid-twentieth century, the heyday of radio drama. I had previously written a book about 1940s Dublin literary magazine The Bell and its influence on the political and social atmosphere of mid-twentieth century Ireland, and my goal for this new project was to explore how writers of radio drama, a public art form for mass audiences, contributed to the development of Irish and Northern Irish culture.

Screenshot 2024-06-06 at 16.36.37 Friel married Anne Morrison in 1954.

At the BBC, an archivist ushered me to a desk in a sunny little room and brought me the trolley of materials I had requested. I had asked for all the files of letters and memos related to every Irish author I knew about who wrote radio plays in the 1940s and 50s: 18 authors in total. I was a bit overwhelmed by the quantity of files, which were supplemented by scripts on reels of microfilm and boxes of microfiche within the archives’ collections.

For the first two days, I focused on Belfast playwrights Janet McNeill and Joseph Tomelty, and photographed as many of their scripts and files as I could, thinking that I might be able to develop this project into a book with a chapter on each author, gathering more playwrights along the way. But at some point in the third day, fatigued, I started paging through the other files stacked on my trolley.

Out of curiosity, I opened a file marked ‘Friel, Brian’, expecting that inside I would find only adaptations of Friel’s most famous stage plays. Instead, I found a letter dated 1956, timidly asking for the BBC’s consideration: ‘Dear Editor, I am enclosing the script of a radio play which I hope you like… I shall eagerly await your verdict. Sincerely yours, Brian Friel.’ I realised by the date that this was from the very beginning of Friel’s career, before he ever had a play performed on stage, and 10 years before his breakout Broadway success.

That script was rejected – an internal BBC memo gave a one-line summary and called it an ‘Amateurish playlet, which wanders off the point and is badly characterised. Quite useless.’ But Friel was doggedly persistent. Paging a little further into the file, I found a letter he wrote in March 1957 to the BBC Belfast studios, accompanying a second radio script: ‘I have no experience of radio drama. Mr. John Boyd knows my stories; he has in fact one on hands at the moment which is to be broadcast some time soon. But I am a complete amateur at plays.’

Screenshot 2024-06-06 at 16.37.18 Brian Friel, Hilton Edwards and the cast of Philadelphia, here I come! boarding plane to New York. Clockwise from top left: Donal Donnelly, Eamon Kelly, Patrick Bedford, Máirìn O’Sullivan.

The producer who received this letter was Ronald Mason of the Belfast BBC, and he eventually became a mentor as Friel worked on learning the art of playwriting. I have long been a fan of Friel’s writing, so it was thrilling to hold his letters in my hands and to read his exchanges with Mason, who had clearly been a major influence at the start of Friel’s career. As I paged through the file, I got so excited about reading the continuing conversation between the writer and his producer that I actually couldn’t sleep that night.

By the end of my fortnight at the BBC, I had photographed a total of 450 new documents, including 75 previously unseen letters from Friel and 53 from Mason.

I returned home to the US and started typing up a chronology of those letters, along with their related memos and scripts. When this chart grew to be 68 pages long, I realised I had much more than a chapter’s worth of material on Friel. I also realised, reading through the letters, how intensively Mason coached Friel toward being a better playwright and toward writing for the live stage instead of radio.

Friel’s career

And then, I followed a hunch. If Friel discussed his writing at length with his radio producer, it seemed possible that he did the same when corresponding with his first short story editor, Roger Angell, at The New Yorker magazine, who later became known to American readers as a beloved commentator on baseball and an accomplished author in his own right. I emailed The New Yorker’s offices and asked for access to their archives. An assistant wrote back and referred me to the New York Public Library, where all of the magazine’s files from 1924 to 1984 are kept – so off to Manhattan I went. As I discovered, in those archives are letters upon letters from Friel, pouring out his heart to Roger Angell, and Angell’s lengthy responses, suggesting revisions or, surprisingly often, rejecting Friel’s stories outright.

I later interviewed Angell, who, at 98 years of age, fondly remembered his friendship with Friel and the exhilaration of ‘finding a young writer who is just beginning, when things are just starting to happen – it’s sort of the main event.’

Taken together, the letters, memos, and scripts I found present a newly complex trajectory of Brian Friel’s early writing career, one that I have traced in my new book. Friel’s correspondence with his first mentors shows how he shaped his early work, how he chose to write for the theatre, and how the patterns that became so memorable in his later plays were set in motion by his beginnings.

Brian Friel: Beginnings by Kelly Matthews has been published by Four Courts Press and is now available in all good bookshops.

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